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What, Us Worry? SubUrbia: Just Give Them What They Want, Already

Most people think that Richard Linklater has had a relatively easy road to success. "After all," they say, "didn't he make Slacker for something ridiculous like ten bucks or something?" $23,000 cash, but close enough to be academic. "And then didn't he come out with Dazed and Confused (which everybody on planet either saw or bought the soundtrack to- I went the middle route and did both)?" This is true as well, as the videocassette and soundtrack of Days both landed on year-end bestseller lists.

"And don't forget Before Sunrise, I mean, he got Ethan Hawke to be in it and that French chick, right?" Yup, Julie Delpy was in it and it got nothing but critical praise and box office jingling, something I'm sure was music to Richard's ears. His distributor made out like a bandit because, like all of Richard's movies, it was cheap as hell to film. What's so expensive about good dialogue?

And that's where the gravy train stops, because there's another side to Richard's career that most don't talk about. Slacker was picked up for distribution by Orion Pictures and the Detour crew was envisioning the rewards that would follow with a juggernaut like the hunter behind them. And on December 11, 1991, Orion filed for bakruptcy. They were a staggering half a billion dollars in debt the year Dances With Wolves swept the Oscars. Distribution for video was a joke.

While shooting Dazed and Confused, Gramercy Pictures officials constantly attempted to put the their two cents worth in to an increasingly frustrated Linklater. Among other plans, one was to have all the music in soundtrack that Linklater had chosen for the movie redone by cover bands. The thought of somebody like Counting Crows doing "Sweet Emotion" resulted in "Dazed By Days," Linklater's personal account of the nightmare of endless channels of officials that he dealt with while making Dazed. While gaining respect from fellow filmmakers, it also royally pissed off Gramercy, who released the film half-assed. Amazingly, it still recouped the investment.

And now Suburbia (referred to for ease of typing). By teaming the script of monologuist and playwright Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) with one of the best character directors of the modern film era, it seemed that success was assured. The only question was how the young cast would perform, and all critical reviews were glowing. Suburbia topped Sundance and... was released. Don't blink, you might have missed it.

It fell worse than flat, which leads me to wonder why the film gods have it in for Richard Linklater. One reason may have been the film's atmosphere: in the eerie light of fluorescent convenience stores, Nicky Katt's character of Tim seems like the Devil himself. Believe it or not, this guy is almost the voice of reason for his pal Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), an over- analytical guy who wants to make a living "you know, just by thinking." Frustration is the theme of Suburbia and the cast, Bogosian and Linklater pull it off... maybe a little too well.

Suburbia's riff on the high school reunion theme snips it a little closer. About two years after graduation we pan in on Jeff, who is living in a pup tent in his parent's garage. His performance school artist girlfriend Sooze is gearing up for her new project, one she wants to take her away to some place far beyond the convenience stores of Burnfield. Of course, nobody can tell her that her stuff is almost embarassingly awful, not even Jeff. His buddy Buff is whiling away his time on a happy trip to nowhere, accompanied slices of greasy pizza, Pabst Blue Ribbon and dreams of shooting music videos. And their old pal Pony is coming back to town, the media darling of a band that based on his strumming sin one scene must be truly wretched. In this world everybody is flawed, even the Pakistani convenience store owner (Ajay Naidu) who has to deal with them: for him, these sloths in the land of opportunity are just one more headache he has to deal with.

Among all these failed (Buff, Bee Bee and Tim) and failing (Sooze, Jeff) people, Pony is like somebody from another planet. This guy they went to high school with is now drawing their peers to his concerts in places like L.A., San Francisco. Sooze is godfucked by his presence and his promise to help her get out of there. Tim snorts contemptously at his strummings, the only one not to pay lip service to his mediocre songs. And Jeff is caught in the middle of all of it, trying not to piss off his girlfriend or his old buddy, but trying to keep his head afloat as he realizes what all of this means for his immediate future. It's time to act, but he doesn't have a clue of what to do. Twenty is a rough age.

The ironic thing about Suburbia is the fact that the very people it is targeted at were, as a whole, really depressed by it. This was a very selected age group, and it seemed that anybody who wasn't 20-24 years old didn't really get a handle on what the characters were alla bout. I understood it just fine, because I've had my share of Jeff moments. The famous parental speech that begins "So, it's time to talk about planning your future..." always brings out the horror in me.

If you were not from this age group or mindset, forget it. Then again, maybe I'm just weird. I went with somebody who was seven years older than myself and she didn't really get anything out of the experience except a free refill of popcorn. You found yourself wondering things like "Why are the lives of these unproductive, pretentious and boring people documented on film?" This, by the way, is how one early letter to Detour felt about one studio's position on Slacker. Perhaps Richard Linklater is just too much of a human being to an audience that wags its' tail at the mention of something like The Fifth Element.

So what we have here is a movie that was seamlessly made, had a great cast  (Ribisi and Katt are the standouts, but everybody did a good job) and had one of the best dark social satirists supplying the words. In other words, completely different from every other Linklater film. There are no genuinely uncomfortable moments in Dazed like in Suburbia when Ribisi is gathering the nerve to go check a camper truck out in the woods. You see, Parker Posey's body might be out there, and his friend Tim might be the killer. In a scene that seems to go forever, Ribisi summons his nerve to take each and every step before getting halfway there and the screen fading out. The agonized wait for him to take each step are nearly intolerable, and I found that I didn't want to see if that pretty girl was dead or not.

With The Newton Boys, Linklater is reunited with Dazed's Matthew McConnaughy and is set to film the period piece before tackling the phenomenon (or religion) of Texas high school football. Maybe the charm of Hollywood's newest golden boy can protect him from the slings and arrows. Or, maybe not.

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